Ever since she was a little girl, UTD student and McDermott scholar Kassandra McLean has had her eye toward space.
Being born and raised in Houston – dubbed SpaceCity, USA, in its own convention and visitors bureau material – must have been in the stars.
“I love anything and everything outside Earth’s atmosphere. And of all the objects in space, I think I love explosions the best,” Kassandra said.
So it’s no wonder she finds herself currently working with the United States government to develop nuclear detonation-detection systems.
Sporting a double major of physics and computer science, Kassandra has been working at Los Alamos National Laboratory for the last three years on several projects.
Distinguishing differences between nuclear detonations and gamma ray bursts (GRBs) is akin to searching for the proverbial needle in a haystack, Kassandra said.
According to the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) website, gamma ray bursts are the most powerful explosions the universe has seen since the Big Bang. They occur approximately once per day and are brief, but intense flashes of gamma radiation. They come from different directions of the sky and last from a few milliseconds to a few hundred seconds.
“Finding GRBs is like finding a large neon pink sewing needle in a haystack. You can find it if you’re looking at the right patch of hay, but you have to be lucky enough to be close to that patch.
“Extending that analogy, when you’re looking for nuclear detonations, you have a handful of hay with some neon-colored sewing needles – lightning and GRBs – in it. If a knitting needle (nuclear detonation) shows up, you’re going to know it. It is then a matter of developing algorithms, or step-by-step procedures for solving problems that can tell the difference between the sewing needles and the knitting ones, and developing instruments that can tell us everything we could possibly want to know about that knitting needle.
“By developing better techniques for detecting gamma ray photons through high energy astronomy, we can use those same advances to improve the nuclear detonation-detection capabilities of the United States. As we improve our nuclear detonation-detection abilities, we can learn more about the individual detonation blast, and more about the bomb that exploded,” Kassandra said.
Kassandra, who also goes by Kas, said that it’s somewhat ironic she began working at Los Alamos on gamma-ray burst satellites (GRB) and later added nuclear detonation-detection work because GRBs were discovered at Los Alamos because of nuclear detonation-detection satellites.
“There has not been a GRB detected within the Milky Way yet, and the current theories point toward more distant galaxies than the Milky Way [that are] earlier in the history of the universe.
“Because GRBs are so far away, they will not have an effect on Earth. The ozone layer protects the Earth’s surface from high energy radiation.
“If a GRB were to occur within the Milky Way, there are two scenarios: If it occurred close to our solar system, the Earth would loose its atmosphere; if the GRB occurred on the other side of the galaxy, the Earth would lose its ozone layer,” Kas said.
Kas considers herself “a total space geek.”
“When I got back from Space Academy [8 years ago], my mother declared that I was officially a space cadet after 14 years of practice.
“For a science project in the second grade, I presented black holes because I thought that they, and the supernovae they formed, were cool. The universe holds so many secrets [that] I want to understand. I can’t not do astrophysics,” Kas said.
She said that she is driven more by her love and passion for science and that, for her, it’s not a rational or logical pursuit.
“Being able to work on Swift for the past three years has been a dream come true,” Kas said.
Swift, a first-of-its-kind multi-wavelength NASA observatory dedicated to the study of gamma-ray burst science, is named for a type of bird that catches insects on the fly.
“The Swift satellite is designed to catch gamma ray bursts on the fly. It is composed of three instruments: the Burst Alert Telescope (BAT), X-Ray Telescope (XRT), and the Ultra-Violet and Optical Telescope (UVOT). It is expected to observe more than 200 bursts with a sensitivity roughly three times fainter than the BATSE detector aboard the Compton Gamma-Ray Observatory. BAT is the gamma ray instrument on board that detects GRBs and locates their positions within about six seconds. Compared with previous missions, that is fast. Swift also is the first satellite to autonomously select and then slew to targets.
"Through my work on Swift (the GRB satellite), I have learned a few things about signal detection in relatively noisy environments, which is crucial for detecting both nuclear detonations and GRBs," Kas said.
- Updated: June 23, 2010